- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Recent editorials from Kentucky newspapers:

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April 17

Bowling Green Daily News on the state budget:

Kentucky has one of the shortest legislative sessions in the country.

Legislators are in session for 30 days in odd-numbered years and 60 days in even-numbered years.

With that in mind, you would think our legislators would work extra hard to do the work that their constituents elected them to do.

But unfortunately, too often we see a General Assembly in Frankfort - both in the Democratic-controlled House and in the Republican-controlled Senate - that bickers, postures, points fingers and plays political games instead of doing the people’s work.

It’s quite a shame, because it is the people of this state who suffer when important legislation isn’t passed, or when budgets aren’t passed as required under our state’s Constitution in even-numbered years.

Until Thursday, Kentucky residents were in a very vulnerable position because legislators had not passed a two-year budget. Fortunately, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle came together and passed a two-year budget. We only wish it wasn’t necessary to wait until the 11th hour.

The budget isn’t perfect, but at least some middle ground was found between the House and Senate.

It appears that both sides agreed to major concessions in the budget. House Democrats agreed to cut spending on public colleges and universities by 4.5 percent over the next two years. They also agreed that colleges and universities will have to compete for a certain portion of their state funding beginning in 2017 under a new system that rewards institutions that do things such as produce more graduates.

Western Kentucky University did get some good news out of this budget. The budget includes equity funding of about $2.5 million for WKU, which is an effort to get funding levels for WKU on par with what is given to other state schools. It also includes $750,000 a year funding for the Kentucky Mesonet, a series of weather stations across the state operated by WKU.

No K-12 education programs were cut. Constitutional offices would be cut by 4.5 percent. The cuts would not affect the duties of each office as set forth in the state Constitution. The Senate and House agreed to put in the $34 million requested by the Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John Minton

Minton told lawmakers the $34 million would stave off cuts to drug courts and court staffing that could leave the system gridlocked.

This is wonderful news for the state court system, and Minton should be commended for working tirelessly during this session to stave off these cuts.

Senate Republicans agreed to spend $25 million over the next two years on a program that promises to give free community college tuition to all Kentucky high school graduates. The proposed budget does not include money to hire more public defenders and social workers.

A major breakthrough in the budget negotiations was both sides agreeing to put more than $1 billion toward the state’s public pension debt that is estimated at more than $30 billion, placing Kentucky among the worst-funded pension programs in the country. It also includes a separate “permanent fund” of money that can only be spent on the pension system upon the completion of a state audit.

For decades, lawmakers have simply kicked the can down the road when it came to paying down our state’s unfunded public pension liability. So, it is nice to see that the two chambers came together and committed this money to finally begin paying down this enormous debt. It’s worth noting this is the highest level the state’s public pension debt has ever been funded.

Although it took legislators the whole session - aided by added deadline pressure issued by Gov. Matt Bevin - to pass this budget, we applaud them for accomplishing this vital task.

We believe a lot of the credit goes to Bevin, who took the right approach Tuesday by telling lawmakers that he would not call a special session that would allow lawmakers to come back on the taxpayers’ dime to do the work they should have done in the regular session.

It appears that Bevin’s words lit a fire under lawmakers to get a budget passed. Bevin can still line-item veto parts of this budget, which lawmakers can’t override at this point because they waited until the last day to pass a deal. The full state legislature was required to approve the budget by midnight Friday.

The people of our state are the winners here. Although they had to watch in dismay during the entire session over the finger pointing and posturing, they ultimately got an acceptable budget during the regular session.

That’s something the citizens of this state should be proud of.

Online:

https://www.bgdailynews.com/

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April 19

The Kentucky New Era on open government:

A court battle for records that shed light on some of Kentucky’s most heinous child abuse cases has finally ended, and the resolution is a huge victory for the public. It establishes that government agencies are not above the law.

The state agreed Monday to pay nearly $700,000 - including $250,000 in fines - to the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader to settle their open records case against the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

In addition, earlier this year the state settled a case with the Todd County Standard and agreed to pay the paper $33,511 for legal expenses and $6,625 in fines. In that case, the cabinet tried to withhold records detailing the abuse of 9-year-old Amy Dye, who was beaten to death in February 2011 by her adoptive brother.

The state’s efforts to conceal records in cases where children suffered fatal or near-fatal injuries from abuse and neglect began in 2009. That’s when the dispute started between the cabinet and the state’s two largest newspapers.

For seven years, attorneys for the cabinet repeatedly fought the disclosure of abuse records. Running up legal bills with taxpayer money, the cabinet tried to argue it was protecting the confidentiality of family members and others connected to children in abuse cases. But the cabinet’s motives were questionable. It appeared the cabinet was more interested in hiding evidence of its own shortcomings.

In the Dye case, for example, the cabinet denied certain records even existed before eventually being forced to turn over them over to the Todd County newspaper. When they were finally released, we learned Amy Dye’s teachers had warned social workers about signs of abuse in her home.

Some of the harshest criticism of the cabinet’s efforts to withhold information came from Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd. In an order he signed in December 2013, he wrote, “The cabinet has intentionally continued to employ a wholesale blanket approach to withholding public records despite such an approach being prohibited by the Open Records Act and contrary to the court’s repeated orders to support any and all redactions by case-by-case analysis.”

Shepherd, who also wrote that state officials had behaved like the open records law was “an obstacle to be circumvented rather than a law mandating compliance,” imposed a $756,000 fine against the cabinet. Then the cabinet, again spending the public’s money on legal fees, appealed.

Two months ago, the Kentucky Court of Appeals upheld Shepherd’s ruling. Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration appealed to the state Supreme Court, but only in an effort to have the fine reviewed. As a result, the settlement agreement was reached.

Wes Jackson, the Courier-Journal’s president, and Rufus Friday, the Herald-Leader’s president and publisher, both said their papers are looking at options to use the fine money - $125,000 each - to promote child welfare and government transparency. Their focus on serving the public is honorable, and we commend their efforts.

Bevin, through spokeswoman Jessica Ditto, put the blame for a long and expensive legal battle on former Gov. Steve Beshear.

“This settlement saves the taxpayers over $500,000, plus additional legal expenses,” Ditto said.

Bevin’s approach to resolving this case could be a good first step in changing the cabinet’s secretive and self-serving culture. We’ll know in time if he truly stands for transparency and open government - as he should.

Online:

https://www.kentuckynewera.com/

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April 19

The Lexington Herald-Leader on the rule of law:

The State of Kentucky did the right thing this week when it agreed to settle a lawsuit requiring release of case documents related to children who were killed or grievously harmed due to abuse and neglect.

This newspaper and The (Louisville) Courier-Journal have been embroiled for almost six years in a legal battle with the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, which investigates cases of fatal or near-fatal abuse and neglect of children, to open the files in those files.

The victory is not for the newspapers, it is for open government.

Open government in this instance means lifting the veil on what led up to the horrible deaths, or near-deaths of these children.

Two profoundly tragic child deaths gave rise to the dispute.

Kayden Branham, a 20-month-old, died in 2009 when he drank drain cleaner that was being used to produce meth in a trailer where his parents, both teenagers, were staying.

In 2011 Amy Dye, a 9-year-old, died after being beaten by an older brother in her adoptive home. Documents that were ultimately released showed that reports of alleged abuse by Amy’s teachers had been ignored.

News reports on the deaths led to creation of an independent panel that reviews all abuse and neglect cases that result in the death or near-death of a child in order to recommend changes to help protect children. This openness and review is the only way we, as a state, can do better by endangered children in the future.

The settlement is also a victory for the rule of law, including the concept that even governments must obey laws. The cabinet will reimburse the two newspapers a total of almost $450,000 in attorneys’ fees that accrued during the litigation. The cabinet will also pay the two newspapers a total of $250,000 in penalties for acting as if Kentucky open records law is “an obstacle to be circumvented rather than a law mandating compliance,” in the words of Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip J. Shepherd’s 2013 ruling.

Shepherd had ordered a penalty of $756,000, saying the cabinet willfully defied state law in refusing to release documents the newspapers requested. The newspapers will share equally the negotiated penalty of $250,000. Each organization is reviewing ways the money can be used to contribute to the causes of open government and child welfare.

Writing for the State Court of Appeals panel that upheld Shepherd’s ruling, Judge Irv Maze agreed that public agencies must be called to task with serious punishment when they defy open records laws by denying access to public documents: “Rigid adherence to this stark principle is the lifeblood of a law which rightly favors disclosure, fosters transparency and secures the public trust.”

Online:

https://www.kentucky.com/


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